Chester-Upland School District (CUSD) officials have revised their fiscal 2014-2015 tax numbers for the coming year and decided to offer prospective new students laptops and pricey music headphones if they choose to leave charter schools, or wherever they are, and enroll in district-run schools starting in September.
Under revised real estate tax millage projections, the district will raise taxes on property in the City of Chester and lower taxes on properties in Upland Borough and Chester Township. The tax plan was announced at a special public meeting last week held by CUSD’s elected school board in support of district Receiver Joe Watkins’ decision.
CUSD’s method of calculating its millage rates is different and more complicated than in most districts because the City of Chester uses a different assessed property valuation database than that used by Upland Borough and Chester Township; they use the Delaware County Assessment Office. As a result, the rates must be leveled by calculating what proportion of the collected taxes is attributed to each municipality.
“It’s the formula and assessment values; the city is different than a township and a borough,” explained Anthony Johnson, an elected CUSD board member. “The PDE (Pennsylvania Department of Education) challenged our last vote (on taxes) and said it was too high.”
The revised rates proposed are 56.3478 mills (a 3.4 percent increase) for the City of Chester, and 23.9726 mills (a 4.45 percent decrease) for Upland Borough and Chester Township. The combined overall tax increase for 2014-2015 is 1.469 percent. The rates previously approved on July 7th reflected a 3.81 percent increase for the City of Chester and no change for Upland Borough and Chester Township. The district must also comply with state regulations not to exceed its index in any individual municipality for 2014-2015; that index is 3.4 percent.
In real terms, the numbers mean property owners in the City of Chester will now pay (before any Homestead Exclusion) $1,408.70 for each $25,000 of assessed property valuation, an annual increase of $46.33. The residents of Chester Township and Upland Borough will now pay (before the Homestead Exclusion) $1,198.63 for each $50,000 of assessed property valuation, an annual decrease of ($55.87).
Earlier this month, the school board adopted a $118.4 million General Fund Operating Budget for the district, representing a decrease of more than $4.3 million, or 3.5 percent, over last year’s budget.
As the district continues finding ways to reduce its budget, it is also reaching out to attract more enrollments. School officials will, again, mount a student enrollment campaign by going door-to-door looking for new prospects.
To sweeten the deal, the district is also promising to provide students who crossover, a laptop and Dr. Dre Beats headphones as an incentive. The headphones carry a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of anywhere from $170 to $600 depending on model.
“We’re competing for kids like everybody else. If we are able to save $8 million by spending $8,000, then that’s an expenditure well worth it,” said Watkins.
Superintendent Gregory Shannon spelled out other reasons why parents and their children should crossover to the district, citing a reduction in violence by about 40 percent at Chester High School, also steady enrollment and the start of a brick-and-mortar cyber school with on-site teachers who can help direct students technologically. Also part of the CUSD Cyberschool is a joint agreement with Widener and Neumann universities and the Delaware County Community College to provide dual enrollment for students there.
“Last summer we were coming in saying, ‘We come in with a dearth of experience in urban education and relative to our experience this is what we can do’,” said Shannon. “This summer, however, we’re saying, ‘Yes, we still have the dearth of experience in working with urban education, but rather than talking about what we can do, we can now say this is what we have done.’”
The CUSD Cyberschool is located inside Chester High School, separate from the traditional classrooms, with its own dedicated entrance. Students between 7th and 12th grade can enroll and choose either morning or afternoon classes. Although the main class space is at Chester High, the district gives kids the option of taking cyber classes at STEM High School (the former Showalter School) as well.
“Our enrollment continues to go up, which is evidence to the fact that parents have more confidence in our brand and more confidence in our services,” praised Shannon.
But one parent feels the incentive of high-priced headphones is an insult.
“I’m appalled,” said Jim Turner, a charter school parent who heard about the incentive as word spread through community chatter. “I think it’s absolutely ridiculous. How in the world is a pair of Dr. Dre headphones an incentive to come to a school to get education for your future? What are you saying about our children?”
Turner said the incentive suggests that a parent can be bought with a pair of Dr. Dre headsets. He insisted that no “real parent” would go for it and he argued the best way for the district to draw parents is by reaching the general standard of providing a quality educational experience.
“How about you provide smaller classrooms and guarantee that the children are going to be able to get to college?” slammed Turner. “Personally, I’m not a big fan of incentives for something that should be your responsibility and right. I’m not a huge fan of that from anybody.”
In an earlier interview, Watkins said the incentive is just one of many ways for CUSD to compete.
“We just want to be as competitive as we can,” said Watkins. “Our job is to compete and let everybody know that we have a great school district. We’ve made it a safer district and we’ve provided more academic options; we’ve increased enrollment and have won a lot of confidence of parents so more kids are staying in school, which is what we want.”